Devin White possesses rare speed for his position, a trait so impressive that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked him fifth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, the highest pick they had ever used on an off-the-ball linebacker. When White got to Tampa and hit the practice field with his new veteran teammates, he found it he was going to need every one of his miles per hour to keep up with one of his main foes across the line of scrimmage, third-year tight end O.J. Howard.
White, in fact, felt like Howard might be mis-labeled on the Buccaneers' depth chart.
Yes, White was smiling, with tongue in cheek, when he said this, but his point about Howard's mismatch-producing speed is a good one. Here's more of that quote:
"O.J. Howard is not a tight end. I hate to say it. I mean, he can flat-out fly up and down the field. It's going to be a mismatch with him on the field, and with Cameron Brate, too. I asked him, 'Who's the blocking tight end? Because both of y'all are going to be mismatches for a lot of linebackers.' And they were like, 'Well, that's kind of the unique thing about us. We can kind of catch the ball anywhere.' … [Howard] is just a big wide receiver. That's about it. He's a big wide receiver, he's not a tight end. Tight ends don't run that fast. Tight ends, they just don't play like him."
Even if White was kidding, he wasn't exactly inaccurate. Howard is 6-6 and 250 pounds, he's a good blocker and he'll spend plenty of time next to the offensive tackles this year, but he'll also work out of the slot, too. And in such instances opposing defenses are going to have to decide exactly what they think Howard is, and whether they need to line up a corner, safety or linebacker across from him. Howard's 16.6 yards per catch last year, best among all NFL tight ends with at least 20 catches, demonstrate how he can affect a game like a speed receiver.
"I do [feel like a receiver sometimes]," said Howard. "I wish I could bend a little more like the receivers, but like I said when I match up against some linebackers that aren't as fast as me, safeties, it's definitely helpful for me. The more I go out there and split out wide [in practice], the more comfortable I'll be when the season comes.
Howard ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, the seventh-fastest of any tight end to run at the Combine this decade. It was just a tick faster than Iowa's George Kittle ran that same year; Kittle has since emerged as a big-play star in San Francisco, with 88 catches for 1,377 yards last year.
Of course, Kittle was the number-one target in the 49ers' passing game, getting a whopping 136 targets. That's not likely to happen for Howard given the multitude of weapons available to Buccaneer quarterbacks, but someone has to replace the 179 targets that went to Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson last year, and they won't necessarily all go to new wideouts. Howard expects them to be divvied up between a lot of targets, but the players who get the most attention will be the ones who most frequently win their matchups, no matter what position they play.
"Absolutely. The first couple practices we've been seeing that. The ball will be spread around. The coach always preaches that when you have your one-on-one matchups you have to win. I think when everyone on our team gets the opportunity to be one-on-one you've got to win because that's where we're going first. There will be a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities for those balls to be caught and to make plays."
Howard had about a third of the targets as Kittle had last year, but that's in part due to an ankle injury that kept him out of the last six contests. Howard also missed two games in his rookie season with a different ankle injury, but both of them were fluky results of being hit from behind. He only needs a bit better luck to make it through a full campaign this year, and that's the first step in emerging in a similar fashion to Kittle.
"Yeah, that's the goal, to stay healthy and play the entire season," said Howard. "Those were just some injuries that happened and are a part of the game. Both of mine were crazy. Sixteen games would be awesome to play. Just looking forward to staying healthy this year and we can get it done."
Howard is probably one of the Buccaneers' best candidates to rise from good to truly elite status in the NFL at any given position this year. He was starting to gain some Pro Bowl buzz before he was hurt last year, which was fair given that he was third in the conference in receiving yards among tight ends at that point, along with his top-notch yards-per-catch figure and competitive touchdown totals. Getting 16 games in could put him over the top, but he'll probably need his targets to be on the rise, too.
Again, Howard isn't likely to get 8.5 targets per game like Kittle did last year while he's sharing an offense with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Cam Brate, but even a moderate uptick would be big for him. Howard had 4.8 targets per game last year. If he gets just one more per game this year and stays healthy throughout, that would come out to close to 93 targets. At his 2018 catch rate and yards per catch, that would in turn produce 66 catches and 1,090. The Buccaneers would be ecstatic if Howard even approached those numbers.
The good news for Howard is that he can already tell on the practice field that Head Coach Bruce Arians and Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich plan to make heavy usage of their talented tight ends.
"We’ve been used a lot," said Howard. "I’ll say the first OTA’s, we knew that coming into it. This position can be very helpful in this offense. [Arians] just finds ways to get us the ball. The first couple days of practice, I’m sure you guys have noticed it, we got a chance to make a lot of plays and I like it a lot."